Jack Merlin Watling, 10 September 2013.
LONDON (The Gisborne Herald) - “LOOK at the children dying or slaving away in arms factories. Their corpses are justification enough to bomb Syria; consequences be damned.”
That is the bellowed humanitarian appeal of those preparing another military adventure in the Middle East. Yet for all the noise, our leaders are vigorously pursuing inaction. The emerging policy is a directionless and ineffective political statement with no strategic or practical merit. We need to be honest about what intervention is and what it will cost. Without that honesty we should stay out.
The logic of humanitarian intervention is simple. Governments have a duty of care for their people and when they fail it others must assume responsibility. Civil wars fall into a special category, but bombarding civilians and gassing suburbs arguably constitutes a breach of care.
Yet the Obama administration and its allies are either incompetent or dishonest, since their proposed “limited strikes” will either fail to strike anything of importance or be extensive rather than limited.
The fighting in Syria is not being fought with co-ordinated and sophisticated weapons. Much of the shelling and civilian casualties come from localised bombardments with improvised launchers and DIY munitions. The fighting is spread across urban areas and it is difficult to distinguish between Free Syrian Army and government troops or government militias.
Even chemical weapons are being used at a battlefield level. Although it was a large attack that prompted calls for intervention, Le Monde has found that chemical attacks are being carried out regularly in localised areas to flush out FSA fighters. Most of the weapons firing these munitions could not be targeted with cruise missiles. Bombing a few pieces of military infrastructure will have no effect on their use.
We can bomb Syria and destroy some runways, stockpiles and hardware, but it will not force the fighters apart or prevent the localised use of chemical weapons, nor will it deter the continued assault on civilian populations. The attack will be ineffective and could undermine the US by reminding everyone that America is above international law.
The move would not even be popular in Syria as many fear that limited strikes will lead to an immediate retaliation against civilians to show that the strikes were ineffective.
If civilians are to be protected then it will be necessary to establish a no-fly zone and force the combatants apart. If chemical munitions are to be eliminated it will require close air attack co-ordinated by ground troops marking targets, as was the case in Libya. To carry out such an operation will be a huge undertaking and we will most likely be required to sustain a military presence for a prolonged period.
Exactly what it will take cannot be calculated until we have an objective. If the defence of civilians is the objective then we can calculate the necessary input of troops and munitions. Until such an objective is clearly defined, however, we cannot calculate the ways and means. At present the objective appears to be to look busy without actually doing anything.
Only once we have established what it will take to make a difference can we decide whether we have the blood and treasure to carry out the operation. Syria could be another Kosovo, but before any intervention is undertaken we must be prepared to sustain another Iraq.
If such a price is too great and we deem it unrealistic to uphold our duty of care then we should do away with the farce altogether. So long as there is no strategy there should be no action.
Originally Published in the Gisborne Herald, 10 September 2013.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.